Sharing knowledge enriches
“We have to build an economy that does not simply consume, that is circular in nature and an interlocking financial system that makes all that possible”, Sir John O’Reilly, President of Khalifa University of Science and Technology, told us at the Budapest Eurasia Forum.
Sharing knowledge enriches
Photo: Róbert Hegedüs
Joakim Scheffer 19/02/2024 21:10

“We have to build an economy that does not simply consume, that is circular in nature and an interlocking financial system that makes all that possible”, Sir John O’Reilly, President of Khalifa University of Science and Technology, told us at the Budapest Eurasia Forum.

Throughout your distinguished career, you have worked in various parts of the world, ranging from Singapore to the United Arab Emirates. Why is connectivity so important nowadays?


Well, let me start by saying that a significant portion of my career has been dedicated to research, especially in technology. In research, connectivity holds crucial importance. No country owns any particular technology exclusively, so interacting, learning from one another, and building on one another is very important in that sense. And it’s one of those things where if you fall behind, catching up won’t be straightforward. At that level, the more connected you are, the more fruitful your own activities are likely to be. If you take it further up, when you eventually start trying to trade things, connectivity and connecting to markets are also really important. So it’s at many layers, with the strength of it.


Technology, research and science are particularly affected by the rivalry between the US and China. What threats does this pose? 


Yes. I think the current situation is considerably unsettling. It’s not the first time we’ve seen things like that, of course. I think the experience says that in terms of science, in terms of knowledge, no good comes of it. Sharing knowledge enriches. Trying to isolate it or trying to own it separately just doesn’t work. That doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have its impact when these things arise. You will hear the word today, which is very frequently used, sovereignty attached to other things, digital sovereignty, for example. That’s about making sure that connectivity hasn’t gone so far that it’s actually dependence. Probably, part of the US concern is about overdependence more than anything else. As in so many things, balance is really important in that sense. You couldn’t do it all with competition because necessarily you had to cooperate. Even when we say cooperation, we must bear in mind that there will always be competition at the same time. They’re not mutually exclusive.


There is an expression for this: coopetition. How important is coopetition in today’s technology and science sector?


Actually, scientists compete. They compete for the glory, for the recognition, or just the sheer being out there because research is about opening up new frontiers, not following behind. So that’s the nature of the endeavour. The main reason behind that is that we build on one another’s enthusiasm; their insights and different environments bring different insights. So, one of the things that come from international cooperation or interactions in research is the context of one country has a nuanced, specific effect on how it is viewed. The different views are important. What makes you think differently? The context in which you’re operating, the cultures that you bring to it and so on. So, actually, cooperation really enriches and drives science, but so does competition.


It is really important that there are issues again where major powers should cooperate, and one of these issues is the regulation and application of artificial intelligence (AI). What are your thoughts on that statement?


I’m sure that there is real substance in that. I’m confident that it applies to many technologies. We’re very aware of it with artificial intelligence because we think of intelligence as so much a human attribute, something we view ourselves as superior to all other beings in that kind of nature the way we are and so on. So maybe it feels even more threatening than some other technologies. But if we look back, new technologies have brought tremendous good and almost always also potential harm. If we think of nuclear energy, what a fantastic thing nuclear energy is, and we would not be where we are today without it. But look at the damage that can be done when it’s put to bad purposes. Therefore, it has to be brought under control. So, it’s not a fundamental difference, but maybe it is a difference in the scale of our concern because it seems even more threatening to humans since it feels so human in nature. There are also a lot of open questions, so it’s right to be cautious. But it would not be right to say that it’s so damaging that we mustn’t do it. It’s a matter of balance and control. We should think about the problem but not let it overly constrain and limit us in our ambitions.


How can AI help us build a sustainable future?


Well, first off, I think it is a technology which is going to be pervasive. It is there; it has become integrated; it becomes integral, inherent to what we do. The broader trend of digitalization is heading in that direction, and with AI, it would be more precise and more effective. Let’s take one extreme. How do we find new therapeutic drugs? Traditionally, a very long, drawn-out process of experimentation in the laboratory with a lot of failures. Then we’ve done tests and trials on people, and eventually, it gets approved by the regulator and is out there and adopted. A very long, very expensive process. But increasingly today, we start with the data set. We start with the issues. What is it we want? What is it we think we want? We explore it in the digital space and go a lot, lot, lot further down closer to that. If I project that further forward because work is taking place on this before we do the human trials, we might get to the stage where we’re doing the trials on a digital twin. Wouldn’t that be wonderful and powerful? Of course, that’s a big extrapolation because of the complexity of biological systems, but you can see the trend. The winds of this are tremendous, the pervasiveness affecting everywhere, affecting the way things are manufactured, the way things are designed and so on. For me, that’s a really exciting future. Of course, there are risks, but again, I love quotations. It’s often in the areas of greatest risk that the greatest opportunities are to be found, and we must work to grasp those opportunities.


You have working experience in two countries – the UAE and Singapore – that have set themselves the goal of becoming leaders in sustainability and green transition. How does Asian sustainability differ from Middle Eastern sustainability?


If you examine the foundational data states of the two countries, they are broadly comparable. They’ve all been there for a long time, of course, as the state they are, but with very different starting conditions. Singapore has no natural resources. All it had was its position and its people. Look at its economy today already. It’s a very modern and very green city. But sustainability is a more recent consideration in there. It has built a certain strength financially, trust, and confidence, which are critically important. Therefore, it’s a trusted environment that goes, and hence, it becomes that regional hub in that sense. Now we go to the United Arab Emirates. Completely different. The same starting point, but it had oil. The discovery and exploitation of that oil made it enormously rich, but resource-rich. The difference, then, if we look at it now, is we can foresee the end of oil, whether we stop using it or we use it all and then stop. Either way, there is a future which cannot be dependent on oil. Now, look at it from the economic point of view. A very rich country living off its resources, what is its future when there is no oil? The current president of the UAE gave a speech which had a big impact on me. He said something like, “When we ship the last barrel of oil, we don’t want to be sad. We want to be able to celebrate”. With that, he conveyed, we must build a new economy that is not oil-dependent, but it’s based on knowledge. What do you need if you don’t have resources? You need a value-adding industrial and commercial base on which to trade. So, the future economy of the UAE will be products, services, financial services, fintech development and so on. The aspiration is to build that economy for the future. That is exactly what we all must do. To build an economy that does not simply consume, that is circular in nature and an interlocking financial system that makes all that possible.


The author is an editor at Eurasia

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